Iqbal – A largely misunderstood philosopher, poet, politician and visionary

Indeewara Thilakarathne reviews Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician in the Ceylon Today

“But the universe, as a collection of finite things, presents itself as a kind of island situated in a pure vacuity to which time, regarded as a series of mutually exclusive moments, is nothing and does nothing.” – Muhammad Iqbal

iqbal frontMeticulously researched and brilliantly written biography of Allama Mohammad Iqbal by Zafar Anjum sheds light on the hitherto-unexplored areas in the life of a great intellectual, philosopher, poet and politician and his enduring vision for Pakistan and India. Although Sarojini Naidu acclaimed Inqbal in his life time as ‘Poet laureate of Asia’ and considered on par with Tagore, Iqbal is, now, a largely misunderstood and ignored poet in India. His role as a politician and philosopher in the independence of India and the subsequent creation of Pakistan was unique. Iqbal is considered as the national poet of Pakistan and ‘Spiritual Father of Pakistan’.

However, Zafar Anjum has noted with dismay that Iqbal’s vision for a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan has turned out to be a nightmare ‘Closer home, Iqbal’s dream of a separate state for Muslims in the north-western province was realised. But, unfortunately, that dream has turned into a nightmare. Today, Iqbal’s Pakistan is on the verge of collapse, ridden with violence, terrorism, corruption, and mismanagement. Not only Pakistan, India too continues to fail Iqbal’s expectations. As far as India is concerned, going forward, the onus of proving Iqbal right or wrong lies with the majority community. If Muslims are allowed to prosper in India as equal citizens in a peaceful and non-violent environment, with their cultural identity intact, then Iqbal will be proved wrong.’

Zafar has divided the life of Iqbal into several broader sections namely, “Beginnings,” “Europe,” “A Lawyer in Lahore” and “The Years in Politics.” What is significant is that the author has not only offered comprehensive biographical details such as the birth and the environment in which Iqbal grew up as a child but also the undercurrents of the socio-political development which provided a fertile backdrop to the birth of a politically and socially conscious poet, philosopher and visionary.
One of the captivating sections of the biography is the section that deals with the political life of the poet and how Iqbal’s vision transformed, perhaps, as a reaction to the seminal political developments of the day. In the chapter entitled “A Poet’s Vision for a Muslim State, The Allahabad Address and the Idea of Pakistan: 1930”, the author eloquently codifies how Iqbal germinated the idea for a separate state which subsequently led to consider him as the “Spiritual Father of Pakistan’. Iqbal enunciated his vision for a Separate state for Muslims in his famous Allahabad Address. The author recounts the historic moment as “The meeting starts with a recitation of the Quran, and then Iqbal is invited to deliver his presidential address. Iqbal knows that his speech will have an international audience, far beyond the confines of this enclosed meeting place. Therefore, he has prepared his speech in English, which only a few of the attendees there will understand. He begins to deliver it in a slow and calm manner. ‘The unity of an Indian nation must be sought not in the negation, but in the mutual harmony and cooperation, of many, Iqbal says after talking about Islam and Muslims in India:

‘It is, however, painful to observe that our attempts to discover such as principle of internal harmony have so far failed. Why have they failed? Perhaps, we suspect each other’s intentions and inwardly aim at dominating each other…The principle that each group is entitled to its free development on its own lines is not inspired by any feeling of narrow communalism. There are communalisms and communalisms. A community which is inspired by feeling of ill will towards other communities is low and ignoble. I entertain highest respect for customs, laws, religious and social institutions of other communities. Nay, it is my duty, according to Quran, even to defend their places of worship, if need be. Yet I love the communal group which is the source of my life and behaviour; and which has formed me and what I am by giving me its religion, its literature, its thought, its culture, and thereby creating its whole past as a living operative factor, in my present consciousness. Even the author of the Nehru Report recognised the value of this higher aspect of Communalism’.
At the initial stage of Iqbal’s vision, his idea was to create a Muslim state within India:

“The units of Indian society are not territorial as in European countries. India is a continent of human groups belonging to different races, speaking different languages, and professing different religions. Their behaviour is not at all determined by a common race consciousness. Even the Hindus do not form a homogeneous group. The principles of European democracy cannot be applied to India without recognising the fact of communal groups. The Muslim demand for the creation of a Muslim India within India is, therefore, perfectly justified.”
The author describes in detail the present day relevance of Iqbal’s vision in an epilogue titled “A Jewel in the Dust”. As pointed out by the author with a quotation from Iqbal, a corner stone of his political vision for Muslims was the unity in brotherhood; “Only one unity is dependable, and that unity is the brotherhood of a man, which is above race, nationality, colour or language…so long as men do not demonstrate by their action that they believe that the whole world is the family of God…the beautiful ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity will never materialize.”- Iqbal.
The author observes that Muslims continue to suffer because they are not united and Iqbal would have been saddened by the situation: ” In the aftermath of the First world War , the Ottoman empire was dismembered and the institution of Caliphate was discontinued by Mustafa Kamal Pasha. As the oil was discovered in the Middle East, Arab lands were divided and dissected into smaller nation states, under the thumb of European, and later American power.
The uncertainty of the fate of Muslims in India and continual fragmentation of Muslim land immensely saddened Iqbal in his lifetime, inspiring him to compose poems to awaken the Muslim masses from their slothful and lethargic slumber under colonial subjugation.”
The author notes that following the 9/11/2001 attacks, the Muslims became targets of violence although Al Qaeda, was ‘itself a creation of the American government to fight the communist threat of Soviet Russia in Afghanistan.’: “In response to the 9/11/2001 attacks, U.S. President George Bush started his ‘war on terror’, which resulted in the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq. In the same vein as this watershed event, Muslims in Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, Xinjiang, Kashmir, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar have been going through repeated cycles of violence.” In addition to equating Islam with terrorism, the author observes that Islamophobia is on the rise.
However, Iqbal’s vision, as pointed out by the author, would not be about a world dominated by Muslims. “His son retired judge Javed Iqbal reportedly said in an address in Maryland: ‘As for sovereignty and international order, the situation as it exists must be accepted,’ he said. ‘We should accept diversity and national sovereignty, for a world order cannot impose unity. We must strive for an orderly world, not a world order’.
Significantly, Zafar points out that Iqbal’s vision is not confined to Muslims but it is for all and is universal. Particularly his message against excesses of capitalism is very much relevant today.
“O, dwellers of the cities of the West,
This habitation of God is not a shop
And what which you regard as true coin,
Will prove to be only a counterfeit
Your civilization will commit suicide
With its own sward.”
After the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the US, Thomas Piketty has brought a very clear message to us, that the inequality in wealth has been steadily rising under capitalism.
‘undoubtedly, when the power of capital transgresses the limits of moderation, it becomes a kind of curse for the world,’ Iqbal once wrote in a letter, ‘ the fact remains that Western capitalism and Russian Bolshevism resulted from a bitter struggle being waged between the haves and have-nots. However, as I have mentioned above, the way of moderation is the only correct and appropriate way which the Quran has recommended to Us.’
Relevance of Iqbal’s vision in general and his prophetic remarks against the ills of capitalism in particular in the present context is strangely somewhat similar to the sentiments expressed by Pope Francis on Capitalism.
Pope noted that there is “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” He is concerned that this culture has produced global indifference. Society seems content to believe that poverty is somebody else’s problem. For him, the poor are not only exploited but excluded. They have become “the outcast, the leftovers.”
What is significant in Zafar Anjum’s biography of Iqbal is that he has not only revisited the life and times of the multi-faceted personality Iqbal but also enunciated his humanistic philosophy primarily based on the teachings of Quran.

(This review was originally published in the Ceylon Today)